09/08/2011 12:39 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2011

Teachers Unions: All For Accountability... In Theory

In 1984, the Ministry of Plenty handled rationing.  The Ministry of Love was in charge of torture.  And in the summer of 2011, life imitated art when the National Education Association announced it supports the use of student performance in teacher evaluations. So says their latest position paper on the subject. Sometimes, you see, organizations say the opposite of what they mean.

The New York Times took the bait, using the headline "Union Shifts Position on Teacher Evaluations."  The casual reader might be led to wonder, have education reformers infiltrated the NEA Politburo?  Then you come across this Orwellian head fake of a phrase in the Times' coverage: "
But blunting the policy's potential impact, the union also made clear that it continued to oppose the use of existing standardized test scores to judge teachers, a core part of the federally backed teacher evaluation overhauls already under way in at least 15 states."


Translation: While they claim to support the principle of teacher accountability, they oppose any particular accountability plan if it contains the inherent design flaw of actually doing anything.  Theoretically, of course, they could support some future accountability plan, provided it were written by a wizard and delivered by a leprechaun. But an actual plan in the real world? One that does anything? Only if a scorpion becomes a frog.

In the meantime, they've decided that the mantra of accountability is just good PR.

Put another way, there's an easy way to predict whether teachers unions will oppose an accountability proposal. Just find out if the plan would lead to actual dismissals of poorly performing teachers (any more than a tiny handful of the most egregious cases, that is, the type convicted of felonies or showing extreme absenteeism). If the answer is yes, such a plan literally meets their operative definition of "punitive," "unfair" and "demonizing."

The fact is that good teachers, like other professionals, aren't afraid of accountability. They're some of the strongest advocates for getting unqualified or burned-out teachers identified and replaced, and they understand that using student data can help do that.  Most of us had some incredible teachers, for whom suffering mediocrity is simply not in their DNA and are revolted by their own unions' relabeling of job protection as fairness.

So, gentle reader, invest not your beliefs in the words of the teachers unions. Watch what they do. Case in point:

Last year, New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature created and passed a new law to get seriously underperforming teachers out of the classroom. They were interested in protecting the New York children from the serious, year-long setback of getting assigned to a poor teacher. Then, just this last May, the state Board of Regents prepared a plan to implement the law. They wanted to protect students, too. But the New York United Federation of Teachers (UFT) were motivated by, shall we say, a different priority and took about a nanosecond to decide what to do. They sued.

Justice Michael C. Lynch of the Albany County Supreme Court was given the case.  Last week, he ruled that teachers can't be rated "ineffective" solely because their students don't learn. The New York Times said his decision "largely sided with the union." 

It wasn't so much Governor Cuomo who lost. It was more the students of New York.

Back in about 280 B.C. there were no teachers unions, but there was a King Pyrrus who ruled over parts of modern day Greece and Albania.  Even though he kept beating the Romans in battles, he realized that the hard slog of each victory was costing him dearly in loyalties and goodwill.  Another one of these kinds of wins, he said, would be his undoing.  

Teachers unions, enjoy your Pyrrhic victory in New York.  The public is beginning to distinguish what you say from what you do.